White Teeth by Zadie Smith


  “You see, embryo cells are all very well, they help us understand the genetic elements that may contribute to cancer, but what you really want to know is how a tumor progresses in living tissue. I mean, you can’t approximate that in a culture, not really. So then you move on to introducing chemical carcinogens in a target organ but . . .”

  Irie was half listening, half engrossed in the pictures passed to her. The next one was of the same mouse, as far as she could tell, this time on its front, where the tumors were bigger. There was one on its neck that appeared practically the same size as its ear. But the mouse looked quite pleased about it. Almost as if it had purposefully grown new apparatus to hear what Marcus was saying about it. Irie was aware this was a stupid thing to think about a lab mouse. But, once again, the mouse-face had a mouse-cunning about it. There was a mouse-sarcasm in its mouse-eyes. A mouse-smirk played about its mouse-lips. Terminal disease? (the mouse said to Irie). What terminal disease?

  “. . . slow and imprecise. But if you re-engineer the actual genome, so that specific cancers are expressed in specific tissues at predetermined times in the mouse’s development, then you’re no longer dealing with the random. You’re eliminating the random actions of a mutagen. Now you’re talking the genetic program of the mouse, a force activating oncogenes within cells. Now you see, this particular mouse is a young male . . .”

  Now FutureMouse© was being held by his front paws by two pink giant fingers and made to stand vertically like a cartoon mouse, thus forcing his head up. He seemed to be sticking out his little pink mouse-tongue, at the cameraman initially and now at Irie. On his chin the tumors hung like big droplets of dirty rain.

  “. . . and he expresses the H-ras oncogene in certain of his skin cells, so he develops multiple benign skin papillomas. Now what’s interesting, of course, is young females don’t develop it, which is . . .”

  One eye was closed, the other open. Like a wink. A crafty mouse-wink.

  “. . . and why? Because of intermale rivalry—the fights lead to abrasion. Not a biological imperative but a social one. Genetic result: the same. You see? And it’s only with transgenic mice, by adding experimentally to the genome, that you can understand those kind of differences. And this mouse, the one you’re looking at, is a unique mouse, Irie. I plant a cancer and a cancer turns up precisely when I expect it. Fifteen weeks into the development. Its genetic code is new. New breed. No better argument for a patent, if you ask me. Or at least some kind of royalties deal: 80 percent God, 20 percent me. Or the other way round, depending on how good my lawyer is. Those poor bastards at Harvard are still fighting the point. I’m not interested in the patent, personally. I’m interested in the science.”

  “Wow,” said Irie, passing back the pictures reluctantly. “It’s pretty hard to take in. I half get it and I half don’t get it at all. It’s just amazing.”

  “Well,” said Marcus, mock humble. “It fills the time.”

  “Being able to eliminate the random . . .”

  “You eliminate the random, you rule the world,” said Marcus simply. “Why stick to oncogenes? One could program every step in the development of an organism: reproduction, food habits, life expectancy”—automaton voice, arms out like a zombie, rolling eyeballs—“WORLD DOM-IN-A-SHUN.”

  “I can see the tabloid headlines,” said Irie.

  “Seriously, though,” said Marcus, rearranging his photos in the folder and moving toward the cabinet to refile them, “the study of isolated breeds of transgenic animals sheds crucial light on the random. Are you following me? One mouse sacrificed for 5.3 billion humans. Hardly mouse apocalypse. Not too much to ask.”

  “No, of course not.”

  “Damn! This thing is such a bloody mess!”

  Marcus tried three times to shut the bottom drawer of his cabinet, and then, losing patience, leveled a kick at its steel sides. “Bloody thing!”

  Irie peered over the open drawer. “You need more dividers,” she said decidedly. “And a lot of the paper you’re using is A3, A2, or irregular. You need some kind of folding policy; at the moment you’re just shoving them in.”

  Marcus threw his head back and laughed. “Folding policy! Well, I suppose you should know; like father like daughter.”

  He crouched down by the drawer and gave it a few more pushes.

  “I’m serious. I don’t know how you work like that. My school shit is better organized, and I’m not in the business of World Domination.”

  Marcus looked up at her from where he was kneeling. She was like a mountain range from that angle; a soft and pillowy version of the Andes.

  “Look, how about this: I’ll pay you fifteen quid a week if you come round twice a week and get a grip on this filing disaster. You’ll learn more, and I’ll get something I need done, done. Hey? What about it?”

  What about it. Joyce already paid Millat a total of thirty-five quid a week for such diverse activities as baby-sitting Oscar, washing the car, weeding, doing the windows, and recycling all the colored paper. What she was really paying for, of course, was the presence of Millat. That energy around her. And that reliance.

  Irie knew the deal she was about to make; she didn’t run into it drunk or stoned or desperate or confused, as Millat did. Furthermore, she wanted it; she wanted to merge with the Chalfens, to be of one flesh; separated from the chaotic, random flesh of her own family and transgenically fused with another. A unique animal. A new breed.

  Marcus frowned. “Why all the deliberation? I’d like an answer this millennium, if you don’t mind. Is it a good idea or isn’t it?”

  Irie nodded and smiled. “Sure is. When do I start?”

  Alsana and Clara were none too pleased. But it took them a little while to compare notes and consolidate their displeasure. Clara was in night school three days a week (courses: British Imperialism 1765 to the Present; Medieval Welsh Literature; Black Feminism), Alsana was on the sewing machine all the daylight hours God gave while a family war raged around her. They talked on the phone only occasionally and saw each other even less. But both felt an independent uneasiness about the Chalfens, of whom they had gradually heard more and more. After a few months of covert surveillance, Alsana was now certain that it was to the Chalfens Millat went during his regular absences from the family home. As for Clara, she was lucky to catch Irie in on a weeknight, and had long ago rumbled her netball excuses. For months now it had been the Chalfens this and the Chalfens that; Joyce said this wonderful thing, Marcus is so terribly clever. But Clara wasn’t one to kick up a fuss; she wanted desperately what was best for Irie; and she had always been convinced that sacrifice was nine tenths of parenting. She even suggested a meeting, between herself and the Chalfens, but either Clara was paranoid or Irie was doing her best to avoid it. And there was no point looking to Archibald for support. He only saw Irie in flashes—when she came home to shower, dress, or eat—and it didn’t seem to bother him whether she raved endlessly about the Chalfen children (They sound nice, love), or about something Joyce did (Did she? That’s very clever, isn’t it, love?), or something Marcus had said (Sounds like a right old Einstein, eh, love? Well, good for you. Must dash. Meeting Sammy at O’Connell’s at eight). Archie had skin as thick as an alligator’s. Being a father was such a solid genetic position in his mind (the solidest fact in Archie’s life), it didn’t occur to him that there might be any challenger to his crown. It was left to Clara to bite her lip alone, hope she wasn’t losing her only daughter, and swallow the blood.

  But Alsana had finally concluded that it was all-out war and she needed an ally. Late January ’91, Christmas and Ramadan safely out of the way, she picked up the phone.

  “So: you know about these Chaffinches?”

  “Chalfens. I think the name is Chalfen. Yes, they’re the parents of a friend of Irie’s, I think,” said Clara disingenuously, wanting to know what Alsana knew first. “Joshua Chalfen. They sound a nice family.”

  Alsana blew air out of her nose. “I’ll call them Chaffinche
s—little scavenging English birds pecking at all the best seeds! Those birds do the same to my bay leaves as these people do to my boy. But they are worse; they are like birds with teeth, with sharp little canines—they don’t just steal, they rip apart! What do you know about them?”

  “Well . . . nothing, really. They’ve been helping Irie and Millat with their sciences, that’s what she told me. I’m sure there’s no harm, Alsi. And Irie’s doing very well in school now. She is out of the house all the time, but I can’t really put my foot down.”

  Clara heard Alsana slap the Iqbal banisters in fury. “Have you met them? Because I haven’t met them, and yet they feel free to give my son money and shelter as if he had neither—and bad-mouth me, no doubt. God only knows what he is telling them about me! Who are they? I am not knowing them from Adam or Eve! Millat spends every spare minute with them and I see no particular improvement in his grades and he is still smoking the pot and sleeping with the girls. I try and tell Samad, but he’s in his own world; he just won’t listen. Just screams at Millat and won’t speak to me. We’re trying to raise the money to get Magid back and in a good school. I’m trying to keep this family together and these Chaffinches are trying to tear it apart!”

  Clara bit her lip and nodded silently at the receiver.

  “Are you there, lady?”

  “Yes,” said Clara. “Yes. You see, Irie, well . . . she seems to worship them. I got quite upset at first, but then I thought I was just being silly. Archie says I’m being silly.”

  “If you told that potato-head there was no gravity on the moon he’d think you were being silly. We get by without his opinion for fifteen years, we’ll manage without it now. Clara,” said Alsana, and her heavy breath rattled against the receiver, her voice sounded exhausted, “we always stand by each other . . . I need you now.”

  “Yes . . . I’m just thinking . . .”

  “Please. Don’t think. I booked a movie, old and French, like you like—two-thirty today. Meet me in front of the Tricycle Theater. Niece-of-Shame is coming too. We have tea. We talk.”

  The movie was A Bout de Souffle. 16 mm, gray and white. Old Fords and boulevards. Turn-ups and handkerchiefs. Kisses and cigarettes. Clara loved it (Beautiful Belmondo! Beautiful Seberg! Beautiful Paris!), Neena found it too French, and Alsana couldn’t understand what the bloody thing was about. “Two young people running around France talking nonsense, killing policemen, stealing vehicles, never wearing bras. If that’s European cinema, give me Bollywood every day of the week. Now, ladies, shall we get down to business?”

  Neena went and collected the teas and plonked them on the little table.

  “So what’s all this about a conspiracy of Chaffinches? Sounds like Hitchcock.”

  Alsana explained in shorthand the situation.

  Neena reached into a bag for her cigarettes, lit one up and exhaled minty smoke. “Auntie, they just sound like a perfectly nice middle-class family who are helping Millat with his studies. Is that what you dragged me from work for? I mean, it’s hardly Jonestown, now, is it?”

  “No,” said Clara cautiously, “no, of course not—but all your auntie is saying is that Millat and Irie spend such a lot of time over there, so we’d just like to know a bit more about what they’re like, you know. That’s natural enough, isn’t it?”

  Alsana objected. “That is not all I’m saying. I am saying these people are taking my son away from me! Birds with teeth! They’re Englishifying him completely! They’re deliberately leading him away from his culture and his family and his religion—”

  “Since when have you given two shits about his religion!”

  “You, Niece-of-Shame, you don’t know how I sweat blood for that boy, you don’t know about—”

  “Well, if I don’t know anything about anything, why the bloody hell have you brought me here? I’ve got other fucking things to do, you know.” Neena snatched her bag and made to stand up. “Sorry about this, Clara. I don’t know why this always has to happen. I’ll see you soon . . .”

  “Sit down,” hissed Alsana, grabbing her by the arm. “Sit down, all right, point made, Miss Clever Lesbian. Look, we need you, OK? Sit down, apology, apology. OK? Better.”

  “All right,” said Neena, viciously stubbing out her fag on a napkin. “But I’m going to speak my mind and for once just shut that chasm of a mouth while I do it. OK? OK. Right. Now, you just said Irie’s doing tremendous in school, and if Millat’s not doing so well, it’s no great mystery—he doesn’t do any work. At least somebody’s trying to help him. And if he’s seeing too much of these people, I’m sure that’s his choice, not theirs. It’s not exactly Happy Land in your house at the moment, is it? He’s running away from himself and he’s looking for something as far away from the Iqbals as possible.”

  “Ah ha! But they live two streets away!” cried Alsana triumphantly.

  “No, Auntie. Conceptually far away from you. Being an Iqbal is occasionally a little suffocating, you know? He’s using this other family as a refuge. They’re probably a good influence or something.”

  “Or something,” said Alsana ominously.

  “What are you afraid of, Alsi? He’s second generation—you always say it yourself—you need to let them go their own way. Yes, and look what happened to me, blah blah blah—I may be Niece-of-Shame to you, Alsi, but I earn a good living out of my shoes.” Alsana looked dubiously at the knee-length black boots that Neena had designed, made, and was wearing. “And I live a pretty good life—you know, I live by principles. I’m just saying. He’s already having a war with Uncle Samad. He doesn’t need one with you as well.”

  Alsana grumbled into her blackberry tea.

  “If you want to worry about something, Auntie, worry about these KEVIN people he hangs around with. They’re insane. And there’s bloody loads of them. All the ones you wouldn’t expect. Mo, you know, the butcher—yes, you know—the Hussein-Ishmaels—Ardashir’s side of the family. Right, well, he’s one. And bloody Shiva, from the restaurant—he’s converted!”

  “Good for him,” said Alsana tartly.

  “But it’s nothing to do with Islam proper, Alsi. They’re a political group. And some politics. One of the little bastards told me and Maxine we were going to roast in the pits of hell. Apparently we are the lowest forms of life, lower than the slugs. I gave his ball-bag a 360-degree twist. Those are the people you need to worry about.”

  Alsana shook her head and waved Neena off with a hand. “Can’t you understand? I worry about my son being taken away from me. I have lost one already. Six years I have not seen Magid. Six years. And I see these people, these Chaffinches—and they spend more time with Millat than I do. Can you understand that, at least?”

  Neena sighed, fiddled with a button on her top, and then, seeing the tears forming in her auntie’s eyes, conceded a silent nod.

  “Millat and Irie often go round there for dinner,” said Clara quietly. “And Alsana, well, your auntie and I were wondering . . . if once you could go with them—you look young, and you seem young, and you could go and—”

  “Report back,” finished Neena, rolling her eyes. “Infiltrate the enemy. That poor family—they’ve no idea who they’re messing with, have they? They’re under surveillance and they don’t even know it. It’s like the bloody Thirty-nine Steps.”

  “Niece-of-Shame: yes or no?”

  Neena groaned. “Yes, Auntie. Yes, if I must.”

  “Much appreciated,” said Alsana, finishing her tea.

  Now, it wasn’t that Joyce was a homophobe. She liked gay men. And they liked her. She had even inadvertently amassed a little gay fan club at the university, a group of men who saw her as a kind of Barbra Streisand/Bette Davis/Joan Baez hybrid and met once a month to cook her dinner and admire her dress sense. So Joyce couldn’t be homophobic. But gay women . . . something confused Joyce about gay women. It wasn’t that she disliked them. She just couldn’t comprehend them. Joyce understood why men would love men; she had devoted her life to loving men,
so she knew how it felt. But the idea of women loving women was so far from Joyce’s cognitive understanding of the world that she couldn’t process it. The idea of them. She just didn’t get it. God knows, she’d made the effort. During the seventies she dutifully read The Well of Loneliness and Our Bodies, Ourselves (which had a small chapter); more recently she had read and watched Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, but none of it did her any good. She wasn’t offended by it. She just couldn’t see the point. So when Neena turned up for dinner, arm in arm with Maxine, Joyce just sat staring at the two of them over the first course (lentils on rye bread), utterly fixated. She was rendered dumbstruck for the first twenty minutes, leaving the rest of the family to go through the Chalfen routine minus her own vital bit part. It was a little like being hypnotized or sitting in a dense cloud, and through the mist she heard snippets of dinner conversation continuing without her.

  “So, always the first Chalfen question: what do you do?”

  “Shoes. I make shoes.”

  “Ah. Mmm. Not the material of sparkling conversation, I fear. What about the beautiful lady?”

  “I’m a beautiful lady of leisure. I wear the shoes she makes.”

  “Ah. Not in college, then?”

  “No, I didn’t bother with college. Is that OK?”

  Neena was equally defensive. “And before you ask, neither did I.”

  “Well, I didn’t mean to embarrass you—”

  “You didn’t.”

  “Because it’s no real surprise . . . I know you’re not the most academic family in the world.”

  Joyce knew things were going badly, but she couldn’t find her tongue to smooth it out. A million dangerous double entendres were sitting at the back of her throat, and, if she opened her mouth even a slit (!), she feared one of them was going to come out. Marcus, who was always oblivious to causing offense, chundled on happily. “You two are terrible temptations for a man.”

 
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